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Marine Biology Students Study eDNA As Part of Coral Restoration Efforts

Hand holding eDNA sample in front of the ocean.
Photo by Mark Gatus, university assistant photographer

Did you know that environmentally, coral is like a desert? Initially, it grows in nutrient-poor areas, and through its existence, those areas can flourish with other sea life. However, several factors, including bleaching events caused by climate change, harmful human contact as seen with heavy tourism, and the biological evidence that coral in Hawaii's oceans is slow-growing, affect the overall health of the island's reefs. Without intervention, underwater ecosystems will soon be devastated as coral suffers from these factors, ultimately resulting in the death of the reefs. However, there's still hope.

Four female students stand with water collection tools, showcasing what they use to collect eDNA water samples. They're standing outdoors, on the beach.
Marine biology students showcasing what they use to collect eDNA water samples.
Photo by Mark Gatus, university assistant photographer

Dedicated to finding solutions to this issue is Dr. Esprit Saucier, assistant professor in the Faculty of Sciences at BYU–Hawaii. Since 2020 Dr. Saucier and students have developed a process of collecting water samples to test for environmental DNA (eDNA), genetic material obtained directly from environmental samples such as soil, sediment, or in this case, ocean water. The project's initial goal is to confirm whether or not this process of collecting eDNA is a reliable indicator of coral abundance and health. If successful, they can then find out what coral species are located in the Laie Bay reefs and how many are spawning under current conditions. Next, they plan to move forward with other project phases and experiment with various methods to restore coral life.

While this innovative process of collecting eDNA samples is currently undergoing testing, it's already proving to be time and energy-efficient. Small groups of students gather daily samples by filtering the ocean water samples on-site and then taking the samples to the campus labs to undergo testing for gametes. Making this significantly less labor-intensive than the alternative method of mapping out the seafloor and physically counting corals each season. Students from the 496R class combined with student research assistants all seem to enjoy the ways they get to participate and see this hands-on project positively impact their learning.

Payal Pritika Devi, a research assistant showing frozen eDNA samples. She is dressed in lab coat and wearing medical gloves.
Payal Pritika Devi, a senior research assistant, explains freezing eDNA samples after collection before they are tested.
Photo by Mark Gatus, university assistant photographer

One of the students heavily involved in this project is Payal Pritika Devi, a senior from Fiji studying marine biology. She explained her interest in exploring the ocean and environmental solutions to improve its well-being began in one of her introductory science courses. From then on, she's been in awe of the ocean's beauty and significance in her life. She's since worked under her professors as a research assistant and is eager to continue this research and similar research in the future to build a brighter tomorrow.